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The Goodness Paradox

January 18, 2021 by Twan van de Kerkhof

The goodness paradox in humans means that, compared with other primates, we practice exceptionally low levels of violence in our day-to-day lives, yet we achieve exceptionally high rates of death from violence in our wars. According to biologist Richard Wrangham “we have a low propensity for reactive aggression and a high propensity for proactive aggression”.

Reactive aggression is a response to a (perceived) threat. It is shown more by men than by women and is associated with high levels of testosterone. It always comes with anger, and often with a loss of control. It comes to the surface when your car is stolen, your spouse is kissing someone else, your child doesn’t want to do what you want, etc. “Physical aggression in humans happens at less than 1 percent of the frequency among either of our closest ape relatives. Compared to them, in this respect, we really are a dramatically peaceful species.”

Proactive agression on the other hand “is not produced by individuals in a fit of rage, or in an alcoholic haze, or out of a testosterone-induced failure of cortical control. It is a considered act by an individual or coalition that takes into account the likely costs.” Examples are going to war or executing an individual. “It has a strong tendency to disappear when it does not pay.” Proactive aggression is characterized as “premeditated, predatory, instrumental, or cold”.

Wrangham’s main thesis in this book is that the least cooperative and most aggressive human beings were eliminated by capital punishment. Humankind evolved without their genes, becoming less aggressive over time. The process domesticated us and gave us our exceptional docility, but with it came our capacity for organized atrocity.

He quotes Belyaev’s rule (a Soviet scientist, also extensively quoted in Rutger Bregman’s boek): “in captivity selection against reactive aggression causes a domestication syndrome. (…) Over time, the domestication syndrome became more exaggerated, reaching its greatest extremes in the most recent periods, when males have become more female-like than ever, faces have become shorter, and, possibly part of the domestication syndrome, brains have become smaller.”

Wrangham builds his book on his personal research on chimpanzees and bonobos and on a rich body of literature. The scientific parts are sometimes too long to my taste but there also fun facts sprinkled through the tekst, for example that sheep are the only nonhuman animals in which exclusive homosexual preference is known. Homosexual acts occur in many other species but they are not exclusive.

I was surprised to find that the great biologist Edmund O. Wilson is lacking from the bibliography. Wilson wrote in The meaning of human existence that our existence is about finding a balance in the eternal internal conflict between selfishness and altruism. As professor Wilson writes: “Within groups selfish individuals beat altruistic individuals, but groups of altruists beat groups of selfish individuals. Individual selection promoted sin, while group selection promoted virtue. To give in completely to the instinctual urgings born from individual selection would be to dissolve society. But to surrender to the urgings from group selection would turn us into angelic robots.”

“The potential for good and evil occurs in every individual”, Wrangham concedes: the philosophers Rousseau and Hobbes were both right. Rousseau basically said that, although we are essentially good, our corruptibility stands in the way of our living in perpetual peace. Hobbes stated that we are born selfish and competitive, and we would continue in the same vein were it not for efforts at self-improvement informed by civilizing forces.

So while Hobbes, Rousseau and Wilson emphasize our inner struggle, Wrangham comes up with a biological explanation of the evolution of violence in our species. I think that this evolution doesn’t end the inner work that we need to do to cope with our internal struggle between selflessness and selfishness.

Richard Wrangham. The Goodness Paradox. How Evolution Made Us Both More and Less Violent. Profile Books, 2020